1922 British Mount Everest Expedition

The 1922 British Mount Everest expedition aimed to achieve the first ascent of Mount Everest, making it the first mountaineering expedition with this specific objective. It was also the initial attempt to scale Everest using bottled oxygen. This Everest expedition pursued the northern approach from Tibet due to the unavailability of the southern route through Nepal, which was closed to Western foreigners at that time.

George Mallory on Everest in 1921
George Mallory on Everest in 1921

Preceding this, the 1921 British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition extensively surveyed the eastern and northern terrain surrounding the mountain. During this mission, George Mallory, a key member of the 1922 and subsequent 1924 expeditions, identified a potential route to the summit. This route later became the focus for summit attempts.

Despite undertaking two unsuccessful summit endeavors, the third attempt marked the conclusion of the expedition due to a tragic event. An avalanche claimed the lives of seven Nepalese porters. This incident not only led to the expedition’s failure in reaching the summit but also marked the earliest recorded climbing deaths on Mount Everest. Nonetheless, the expedition did manage to establish a new climbing height record of 8,321 meters (27,300 feet) during its second summit effort, a record later surpassed in the subsequent 1924 British Everest expedition.

The Quest to Conquer Mount Everest

Tibetan visa issued to the 1921 expedition
Tibetan visa issued to the 1921/22 expedition. PC: Museum of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling

The attempt to ascend Mount Everest carried a broader significance beyond its immediate goals. It reflects the pioneering spirit prevalent in the British Empire. Faced with prior unsuccessful endeavors to reach the North and South Poles, the British turned their sights to the “third pole” – Mount Everest.

The groundwork laid during the 1921 surveying activities played a pivotal role in preparing for the 1922 expedition. John Noel was the official expedition photographer and brought along an impressive array of equipment. It included three movie cameras, two panorama cameras, four sheet cameras, one stereo camera, and five compact “vest pocket Kodaks.” 

Designed to accompany mountaineers to great heights, these lightweight cameras empowered them to capture possible summit accomplishments. Alongside these tools, a dedicated “black tent” for photographic work was included. Noel’s efforts resulted in comprehensive documentation of the expedition, including numerous photographs and a film record.

After making observations during the 1921 expedition, the team determined that the best time for a summit attempt would be between April and May, before the monsoon season began. As a result of this insight, subsequent expeditions in 1922 and 1924 were strategically scheduled.

Innovations and Controversies: Oxygen Use on the 1922 Everest Expedition

The 1922 expedition marked a pivotal juncture in the ongoing debate surrounding the ethical use of “fair means” and the topic of using bottled oxygen in the “death zone” of high-altitude climbing. A key figure in these discussions was Alexander Mitchell Kellas, among the initial scientists to advocate for the potential benefits of bottled oxygen at extreme altitudes. Despite this, Kellas’ insights faced limited acknowledgment, partly due to his scientific contributions being rooted in the realm of amateur exploration.

The pressure vessel experiments conducted by Professor Georges Dreyer drew more substantial attention. These experiments were inspired by the high-altitude challenges encountered by the Royal Air Force during World War I. Collaborating with George Ingle Finch, Dreyer’s research indicated that survival at substantial heights necessitated supplemental oxygen assistance.

Rainbow Valley and Death Zone on Everest
Rainbow Valley and Death Zone on Everest

In response to this scientific groundwork, the 1922 expedition embraced the concept of using bottled oxygen. Each bottle held around 240 liters of oxygen, with four bottles secured on a carrying frame to be borne by the climbers. This introduced an additional load of 14.5 kg per mountaineer. They incorporated a total of ten of these systems, inserting a tube into the mouth for oxygen delivery alongside a mask covering the mouth and nose. Dreyer also prescribed specific oxygen flow rates: 2 liters per minute at 7,000 m (22,970 ft) and 2.4 liters per minute during the summit ascent. This arrangement allowed approximately two hours of usability per bottle, exhausting all oxygen within a maximum of 8 hours of climbing.

Modern oxygen bottles, filled with oxygen at a pressure of 250 bar, typically hold 3 or 4 liters. At a flow rate of 2 liters per minute, a contemporary bottle can sustain climbers for about 6 hours, reflecting advancements since the pioneering 1922 expedition.

George Finch was responsible for overseeing this equipment during the expedition, leveraging his background as a chemist and his specialized knowledge in this particular technique. He conducted daily training sessions for his fellow climbers to familiarize them with the equipment’s operation. However, the devices themselves frequently posed challenges—they were prone to malfunctions, lacked durability, and weighed considerably, exacerbated by their limited oxygen capacity.

Mountaineers expressed discontentment with these oxygen bottles, with a notable portion opting to ascend without relying on them. Among the local porters from Tibet and Nepal, these oxygen containers earned the nickname “English air” A term reflective of their origins and intended use.

1922 British Expedition Team

The selection of expedition participants extended beyond their mountaineering expertise, taking into account their family backgrounds, military service, and professional experiences.

Charles G. BruceExpedition LeaderOfficer, Brigadier
Edward Lisle StruttDeputy Expedition Leader and MountaineerOfficer, Lieutenant-Colonel
George MalloryMountaineerTeacher
George Ingle FinchMountaineerChemist
Edward Teddy F. NortonMountaineerSoldier – Officer, Major
Henry T. MorsheadMountaineerSoldier – Officer, Major
Dr. Howard SomervellMountaineerMedicine
Dr. Arthur WakefieldMountaineerMedicine
John NoelPhotographer and movie makerOfficer, Captain
Dr. Tom G. LongstaffExpedition DoctorMedicine
Geoffrey BruceTranslator and Organizational TasksOfficer, Captain
C. John MorrisTranslator and Organizational TasksOfficer, Captain
Colin Grant CrawfordTranslator and Organizational TasksOfficer of the British Civil Colonial Government
Table showing the participants of the 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition

In addition to the mountaineers, a substantial contingent of Tibetan and Nepalese porters joined the expedition, culminating in a total roster of 160 individuals.

Establishing the Foundation for the 1922 Everest Expedition

Rongbuk Monastery and Mount Everest
Rongbuk Monastery and Mount Everest

The journey to the base camp closely followed the path established during the 1921 expedition. The preparations commenced in Darjeeling, India, where the expedition members convened at the end of March 1922. To ensure the smooth organization and recruitment of porters, some participants had arrived as early as a month prior. 

The majority of the group set out on the journey on March 26. However, Crawford and Finch extended their stay by a few days to arrange transportation for the oxygen systems. Due to a delay in the arrival of these critical components in Kolkata, they had to manage this supplementary coordination before moving forward from Darjeeling. Fortunately, this additional logistical planning proceeded without complications, ensuring the successful transport of the oxygen bottles.

With official travel authorization from the Dalai Lama in hand, the expedition embarked on their journey through Tibet. Departing from Darjeeling, the route led them to Kalimpong, where they made a stop at St Andrew’s Colonial Home. This hospitable pause provided the team to rest and receive a warm welcome from the home’s founder, John Anderson Graham, as well as Aeneas Francon Williams, a schoolmaster and writer. 

After this brief interlude, the journey continued to Phari Dzong and further to Kampa Dzong, reaching the latter on April 11. A three-day respite was taken here to accommodate Finch and Crawford, who caught up with the main group while carrying the crucial oxygen bottles. The expedition proceeded to Shelkar Dzong before heading north to the Rongbuk Monastery and their designated base camp location. To facilitate acclimatization, the participants varied their modes of travel between walking and horse riding. The culmination of their journey occurred on May 1, when the expedition reached the lower expanse of the Rongbuk Glacier, marking the establishment of their base camp site.

Navigating the Routes to Everest’s Summit from the North

1922 Everest Expedition
PC: Gutenberg

In the era preceding World War II, British attempts to conquer Mount Everest were confined to the northern approach from Tibet. An essential breakthrough came in 1921 when George Mallory identified a viable climbing route on Everest from Lhakpa La to the mountain’s north face and onward to the summit. 

This pivotal path commences at the Rongbuk Glacier, traverses the challenging terrain of the eastern Rongbuk Glacier valley, and advances to the icy slopes of the North Col. From this point, the exposed ridges of the North Ridge and Northeast Ridge offer passage towards the summit pyramid. Notably, a significant obstacle known as the “Second Step” stood at an elevation of 8,605 meters (28,230 feet) on the upper northeast ridge. 

Rising about 30 meters with a slope surpassing 70 degrees, this impediment culminated in a nearly seven-meter vertical wall. Beyond the Second Step, the ridge path extended to the summit through extended yet gentle slopes. (The first official successful ascent via this route was achieved by a Chinese expedition in 1960).

In parallel, the British explored an alternative course along the north wall flanks of the mountain. This involved ascending the subsequently named Norton Couloir to reach the Third Step before progressing to the summit. (This specific route was later employed by Reinhold Messner during his solo ascent in 1980).

Base Camp Establishment and Initial Ascent Plans

North Col: North East Ridge Route 1922 expedition
North Col: North East Ridge Route

The Rongbuk Valley’s base camp region and the upper east Rongbuk Glacier had been identified during the 1921 reconnaissance expedition. Yet, no one had ventured into the eastern Rongbuk Glacier valley until May 5. On this day, Strutt, Longstaff, Morshead, and Norton undertook an initial and thorough reconnaissance of this valley. Higher up, the Advanced Base Camp (ABC) was established at the glacier’s uppermost section, situated beneath the icy slopes of the North Col at an elevation of 6,400 meters (21,000 feet).

During the ascent between the base camp and the advanced base camp, two intermediary camps were established. Camp I at 5,400 meters (17,720 feet) and Camp II at 6,000 meters (19,690 feet). Local farmers provided support in erecting and maintaining these camps. It’s worth noting that Longstaff, responsible for organizing and transporting tasks, became exhausted and ill, hindering his further involvement in mountaineering activities during the expedition.

On May 10, Mallory and Somervell departed from the base camp to set up Camp IV at the North Col. Surprisingly, they reached Camp II just two and a half hours later. The next day, they started their climb up the North Col. A camp was situated at an elevation of 7,000 meters and well-supplied with provisions.

Originally, the plan entailed Mallory and Somervell making an initial ascent attempt without supplemental oxygen, followed by a second ascent by Finch and Norton using oxygen. This plan had to be abandoned due to the majority of climbers falling ill. Consequently, a decision was made for the relatively healthy climbers – Mallory, Somervell, Norton, and Morshead – to ascend together.

First Ascent Attempt: Mallory, Somervell, Norton, and Morshead’s Climb on Everest

George Finch with supplemental oxygen
George Finch with supplemental oxygen

On May 19, Mallory, Somervell, Norton, and Morshead, accompanied by nine porters, started their initial ascent bid from Camp III. Departing at 8:45 a.m., they reached the North Col in favorable weather conditions, with sunny skies noted by Mallory. Tents were erected around 1 p.m. as they prepared for the coming day.

Continuing on May 20, the climbers aimed to minimize their load, carrying essentials such as small tents, double sleeping bags, food for 36 hours, a gas cooking system, and thermos bottles. While some porters intended to ascend higher, only five decided to go beyond the North Col. There were difficulties with inadequate airflow and sleeping conditions. Beginning their climb at 7 a.m., the team encountered worsening weather and plummeting temperatures. Venturing onto unfamiliar territory above the North Col, they encountered previously unclimbed summit slopes. Experiencing extreme cold, the porters lacked proper warm clothing, leading to their descent.

The following day, May 21, the climbers readied themselves to depart from Camp V around 8 a.m. Unfortunately, a mishap led to the loss of a food-laden rucksack down the mountain. Despite Morshead’s effort to retrieve it, the strain rendered him unable to continue. The ascent by Mallory, Somervell, and Norton proceeded along the north ridge towards the upper northeast ridge.

Around 2 p.m., they decided to turn back. They ascended to a height of 8,225 meters (26,985 feet), setting a new climbing record. Returning to the last camp, they safely descended with Morshead. Near disaster was averted when Mallory prevented slipping climbers from falling by using his rope and ice axe. By the time they returned to Camp V it was dark and went through dangerous crevasses above the camp. 

On May 22, 1922, they achieved the highest altitude reached by climbers – 26,800 feet (8,200 meters) – they began their descent from the North Col at 6 a.m.

Second Ascent Attempt with Oxygen

North Face of Everest and Routes
  • Green Line: Normal route, mainly the route tried in 1922, high camps ca. 7700 and 8300 m, nowadays the 8300 camp is a little to the west (marked with 2 triangles)
  • Red Line: Great Couloir or Norton Couloir
  • Dark Blue Line: Hornbein Couloir
  • ? : 2nd step at 8605m, ca. 30m, class 5–9
  • a): spot at ca. 8325m where George Finch went with bottled oxygen

George Ingle Finch, Geoffrey Bruce, and Gurkha officer Tejbir undertook the second climb, this time supported by oxygen. After Finch’s recovery, realizing the scarcity of available climbers with the necessary abilities, they recruited Bruce and Tejbir as suitable companions. Prior to the climb, oxygen bottles were transported to Camp III, ensuring ample supply higher up the slopes. Upon inspection, the bottles were found to be in good condition.

On May 24, accompanied by Noel, the group ascended to the North Col. On the subsequent day, May 25, Finch, Bruce, and Tejbir embarked on their ascent via the north and northeast ridges, commencing at 8 a.m. However, the climb was consistently hindered by strong winds. Carrying bottles and equipment, twelve porters supported the climbers. Notably, the utilization of oxygen proved highly advantageous, enabling the mountaineers to outpace the porters despite carrying heavier loads. They halted at 7,460 meters (24,480 feet) due to intensifying wind.

Resuming on May 27, the climbers faced dwindling food supplies due to the unexpectedly prolonged climb. Despite starting in sunny conditions at 6:30 a.m., they encountered increasingly strong winds. Tejbir struggled without appropriate wind-resistant attire and eventually stopped at 7,925 meters (26,000 feet). Finch and Bruce sent him back to the camp and continued their climb, albeit unroped. 

At 7,950 meters (26,080 feet), Finch adjusted their route due to severe wind. This led them to the north wall flank in the direction of the “Norton Couloir.” While horizontal progress was promising, vertical elevation gains were limited. At 8,326 meters, Bruce encountered issues with the oxygen system. Recognizing Bruce’s exhaustion, Finch made the decision to turn back. Despite this, the altitude record was once again surpassed. By 4 p.m., they returned to the North Col camp and within 1 1⁄2 hours, reached Camp III on the upper Eastern Rongbuk Glacier.

Third Ascent Attempt and Tragic Avalanche: Mallory’s Ill-Fated Everest Climb

1922 Everest Expedition Route

Despite Longstaff’s medical concerns about the exhausted and ill state of the mountaineers, Somervell and Wakefield initiated a third attempt.

Beginning on June 3, Mallory, Somervell, Finch, Wakefield, and Crawford set out from base camp with 14 porters. Finch had to withdraw at Camp I. On June 5, the remaining climbers, Mallory, Somervell, and Crawford, reached Camp III. They were impressed by Finch’s progress in the previous attempt. Mallory, inspired by Finch, now intended to utilize oxygen.

On June 7th, Mallory, Somervell, and Crawford began guiding the porters through the icy North Col slopes. Split into four roped groups, they compacted the snow. An unfortunate moment led to a piece of snow coming loose. This resulted in an avalanche that partially buried Mallory, Somervell, and Crawford. Meanwhile, the group behind them faced a 30-meter avalanche of heavy snow. 

Tragically, nine porters from two groups fell into a crevasse and became buried under immense snow masses. Despite rescue efforts, six porters lost their lives, two were recovered, and one remained untraceable. This catastrophe marked the end of the climb and the expedition. Mallory’s choice to climb straight up the icy glacier instead of safer curved paths caused the avalanche.

On August 2, all European expedition members safely returned to Darjeeling, marking the end of the 1922 British Mount Everest Expedition.

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